Mapping Conventions in Early Modern Europe

Having posted a few versions of maps I’ve attempted over the years, I should mention a few issues relating to early modern cartography. I’m far from an expert in the matter, so if you’re interested in the subject there’s a whole field of historical cartography out there – the journal Imago Mundi is the place to go to hear what the experts have to say.

As if early moderns weren’t confused enough keeping track of the multitude of ways they used names and dates, and even how they counted  men, they also had to deal with how to represent 3D space on a scaled-down 2D plane (i.e. paper): maps, in other words. The early modern period saw significant developments, from the late medieval development of maritime navigation charts to European explorers mapping the world, to the increasing precision of maps by the Cassini family in the mid-18C.

Increasing Accuracy

We all know about the development of marine charts for navigation (portolan charts and the like) culminating in the development of the Mercator projection – a projection designed to facilitate easy navigation.

Other famous cartographers of the period included Johan Blaue’s maps of Europe and the world:

Blaue’s map of Cumbria (Lancashire U Libe –

Some of these cartographers’ names were used long after they had died, either through their apprentices and workshops or somebody just trying to cash in on the name. Some later maps were also simply reprints of previous maps, sometimes decades apart.

A previous post mentioned a number of online map resources if you want to explore for yourself. My first-hand knowledge of early modern maps is limited to the late 17C and early-to-mid 18C. Many publishers offered maps of battles, sieges and theaters for sale – you can see them advertised in the contemporary newspapers, and some of them are also available in the archives and in various digital databases. Map publishers/creators relating to Louis XIV’s wars include:

  • In France: geographers include Roy, Nicolas de Fer, Sanson, Delisle, Beaurain…
  • In the Low Countries: Eugène Fricx, Anna Beek, Visscher, Pierre Husson…
  • In Germany: Bodenehr.
  • In Spain: Jean Boulengier.
  • In Britain: most of the printed maps I’ve seen come at the end of the war (e.g. in Brodrick). Quite often you’ll see historians use the maps in Du Bosc/Campbell’s A Military history, and Rapin’s History – many of these are also what you see for sale today.
  • In various archives you can occasionally even find manuscript maps made for contemporary use. Quite rare is the ad hoc map sketched out in the margins of a letter. More often, an enclosed map might be mentioned in the text of a letter, but the map itself will be missing. Maps in the archives are usually separated into separate volumes.

More broadly, other well-known map makers of the period include Ferraris (Belgium) and the French Cassini family maps created in the mid 18C. See this previous post for an excellent website with a searchable index.

So how accurate were these maps anyway?

Wienand had asked in the aforementioned post about the precision and accuracy of boundary lines on maps. My understanding is that for most of the early modern period the boundaries themselves were extremely imprecise, not to mention cartographic representations of them. If the borders were based off of physical boundaries such as rivers, countries might be able to come to terms, although these ‘natural’ boundaries could be awfully enticing, prompting many to argue that Bourbon policy was to expand its own boundaries to the Rhine. Rivers had their own problems, however, as the navigation of said river (and any tolls) was still up in the air – a leisurely boat trip along the Rhine will offer you plenty of scenic German castles within cannon-shot of the river. For a timely discussion of how messy this seemingly-simple issue of river-as-border can become, see this NYTimes Opinionator column from Frank Jacobs on the sovereignty of Pheasant Island in between France and Spain as determined by the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, and of the Vienna resolution to the German-Luxemburgian thalweg condominium of Schengen (article possibly behind a paywall)

Just as we see today in parts of the world, the borders themselves were contested. I seem to recall someone claiming that the first real attention to precise boundaries came up during the negotiations at Westphalia in 1648, but I don’t know enough to confirm this. Jeremy Black highlights the national/dynastic subtext of many maps, for example that French atlases from Louis XIV’s age conveniently included all of Lorraine, despite the Sun King’s lack of a claim to the entirety as represented by international treaties. We can also recall Louis XIV’s famous quip upon seeing a revised map of a now-shrunken France created by his geographers: “You’ve cost me more territory than my enemies!”

Early modern maps also illustrate the same kind of lack of standardization that we’ve already discussed with regard to orthography and names. The more cosmopolitan of Americans can appreciate what it’s like to travel abroad and of the need to convert metric distances (and speeds, and temperature) into our native ‘English’ measures, but the situation was far worse for early moderns. On a human scale, early moderns had the same problem with feet (pied) that they had with weights: each region might have its own length for a foot, and some have estimated France alone had thousands of different variations. This is also the source of the confusion over Napoleon’s height – he was apparently 5′ 7″ (average for the period), but the French pouce was translated directly into British inches (5′ 2″ I believe), even though the two units were slightly different (the French pouce being 0.17 cm longer). Leagues (Fr: lieue) varied by location as well (3 English miles, 3-4 km in France…), and were frequently used as the main measure for travel distances, supposedly based on the distance a walking person could travel in an hour. Miles had been around since the Roman world, and were as variable as paces – the term based off of a thousand paces or intervals. Once again, we can thank the French Revolutionaries for the introduction of the metric system in the 1790s, enforcing a sense of standardization, while at the same time forever plunging the world into a strict division between Anglos (increasingly just Americans) and the rest.

To confuse matters further, there were other measures as well, depending on the context. In a tactical context, paces (2.5-3 feet) were the standard measurement for distance among soldiers. The aerial views of fortifications were called ‘plans’, and engineers illustrated their fortresses in toises (a little over 6 feet), although English engineers measuring the fortifications of Port Mahon (Minorca) used ‘canes’ and ‘palms’ as their units of measure.

We can see how early moderns coped with this multiplicity of measurement standards by looking at their maps. This map of Germany (by Libeaux from 1701) has NINE different scale bars, one each for German leagues, French leagues, Hungarian leagues, Swiss leagues, Low Countries leagues, Palatinate leagues, Hesse leagues, Swabian leagues, and Bavarian leagues. (Apologies for the resolution):

German map distances

Even worse, you had to change your scales depending on which part of Europe you were looking at. Those Palatine and Swabian leagues were no good in Flanders. So a 1701 map of the Low Countries replaced most of those scales with separate ones for varying leagues as measured in Flanders, Artois, Brabant, and Luxemburg:

Low Countries map with scales

Not every map included this many scales, but you will often see at least two scales or more, depending on the territory being mapped.


So when we talk about mapping the early modern past, we need to recognize several things:

  • Contemporary maps were far less accurate than modern maps. So if accurate measurement of distances is required for our research, we might want to use modern maps and superimpose early modern features onto them. On the other hand, if our focus is on how contemporaries viewed the distances (e.g. their calculations of march times, etc.), then we definitely want to use the maps they used, and figure out which exact version of their units they meant. It was only in the mid- to late-18C that mapping techniques approached modern accuracy standards; it wasn’t until late in the same century that contour lines were used with any consistency.
  • Contemporary maps were far less precise than modern maps. Many early modern maps had conventions – “Here be dragons” being the most famous – that were basically filler and represented the mere presence or speculated presence of an object, and not necessarily the precise boundaries of it. Mountains and forests are good examples.
  • Maps are also an expression of power as well as a way of expressing power. The mere existence of accurate maps is itself an indication of a centralized political entity: most people have neither the money to pay dedicated surveyors and cartographers (much less educate them), nor do they have the authority to intrude on other people’s property in order to survey it. Landowners might keep maps of their holdings so as to accurately collect rent from their subjects, while these same landowners sought to prevent royal tax collectors from making these same measures, for fear their holdings would be taxed more accurately (cadastral maps). But maps also express power. Kings would show visitors maps of their holdings to impress them with their vast domain – Louis XIV had dozens of scale models of his fortresses (les plans-reliefs) to show off, as well as to follow the reports from the trenches. Long before the red of the British Empire, Philip II of Spain’s propagandists bragged that he ruled the first empire on which the sun never set. More abstractly, maps were a way of expressing power through ownership, such as naming new lands after places from your own country of origin (he says as he sits in his house in New England). Many historians have written about rulers claiming territory as theirs and not others regardless of claim by having maps made to suggest that ownership. To bring it to the present day, I like to show this map to my students and discuss what message is being sent by its maker:

Map of Europe

Remember as well that maps are just like any other document – they were created by humans with particular purposes in mind. For example, when the Dutch commander Opdam defended his actions during the battle of Ekeren in 1703, he took care to contest several facts that had been advanced in a published map of the battle. The details appearing on maps are as shaped by conventions and bias as the prose they wrote.

Future posts in the Early Modern Conventions series: money, and paleography (handwriting).


  • Have you come across any interesting anecdotes regarding EME military cartography or the use of maps by early moderns?
  • What is the best contemporary map you’ve come across, and why?

Suggested Readings:

  • Black, Jeremy. Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Spanish map of invasion of England on p. 187. 1590 map of Ostend on p. 242.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Printed 1606 French map of Franco-Swiss border.

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3 responses to “Mapping Conventions in Early Modern Europe”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    Boney was lucky they just went after his height…British anatomically-based propaganda got markedly more vicious over the next 120+ years. 😉

  2. learnearnandreturn says :

    There’s a table of comparative linear measures for different nations, prepared for the British Army of Occupation in France in 1815, included in the Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Brisbane (1860), p. 34 – on Google Books at the following link (if I’ve managed to paste it correctly).

    It makes you realise what a real problem it was – Wellington got Brisbane to prepare a whole set of tables, to assist the commissariat in calculating weights and measures while in France.

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